REBUILT – The Story of a Catholic Parish
Frank DeSiano, CSP
Here’s a book for every Catholic pastor and minister to read. The title refers to the transformation Father Michael White and his pastoral associate, Tom Corcoran, have brought about in Nativity Parish, located in Timonium, MD, in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The authors begin with a description of their rather normal suburban parish along a strip of interstate that represented where the Catholic population has been moving over the past decades.
This book represents the most vivid description of what the phrase “from maintenance to mission” could mean. They describe the parish they inherited, and the myriad frustrations that go along with it. What they show about their inherited parish will resonate with many pastoral ministers across the socio-economic spectrum of the United States. “Business as usual,” might be a way to compress the description-the spate of parish activities falling upon a stretched and stressed-out staff with diminishing returns. The authors can be scathing when they talk about the parish they inherited-and many traits of the typical American parish. Perhaps mincing no words can shock a parish culture that all too often runs on “automatic pilot.”
The heart of the book revolves around a distinct shift the authors took. Instead of trying to cater to endless demands from parishioners who ate up time, energy, vision, and mission, they deliberately started to focus on who was not coming to church—the “dechurched” as they name them—and what they could do to reach out to this group. Their bet was that if they stopped trying to mollify the typical parishioner whose attitude was like that of a “demanding consumer”—people who even complained, in one of their examples, about free food—and start reaching those who are “lost” and totally unconnected, they could evolve a dynamic and relevant parish.
One of the exciting parts of the book is their image of a character they called “Timonium Tim.” They deliberately tried to sketch a typical dechurched person in their area, “Tim,” and think about what might get someone like “Tim” to start coming around to church. They write,
“Tim is the quintessential lost person in our mission field. Tim is a good guy. If you met Tim at a party, a likely place to run into him, you’d like him. He’s educated, well dressed, and successful at what he does. Tim is married with children. He has a beautiful home and a comfortable lifestyle. He drives a nice car.
“Tim works hard all week and likes to take the weekends off. On Sunday mornings Tim is on the golf course or on game days at the Baltimore Raven’s stadium. Wherever he is, he’s definitely not in church; he’s never in church, except maybe for a wedding or a funeral. The idea doesn’t even occur to him. Tim is culturally Catholic, the product of a parish religious education program or parochial school. But Tim is definitely not a believer.”
Part of their efforts in this direction involved exploration of Evangelical megachurches. They describe their sense of intimidation when they went to their first such conference—how they would be received as the only Catholics participating. The sense of welcome they received played a big role in the model of parish they eventually developed. They talk about a visit to Saddle Back Church, directed by Rev. Rick Warren, and how that challenged them to rethink what a Catholic parish could be.
Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran have undertaken a brave pastoral venture: trading tired and demanding “Catholic” consumer Christians for dechurched secular members of our consumer society—with the hopes that these later consumers, the “Tims” of Timonium—can become disciples. The evangelical tone of their book, with its hewing to the imperatives of the Gospel—will challenge, and energize, many of our typical parishes.
Next month this newsletter will devote a little more space to some of the decisions and directions that evolved at Nativity Church in Timonium. For now, it might be an instructive exercise to try to define the “dechurched” person in our neighborhood—the characteristics, the fears, the habits, the values—and how your parish might start approaching someone like this.
Note: Rebuilt is available from Ave Maria Press